'A Tale of Three Sisters' ('Kiz Kardesler'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A disconcerting story with the cruelty of a fairy tale.

Family dramas tend to repeat themselves in this timeless story from rising Turkish auteur Emin Alper.

Setting his tale of family love and rivalry, small ambitions and great cruelties in a postcard-perfect village nestled between snowy mountain peaks, Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters (Kiz Kardesler) is a unique work that deftly blends Chekhov and the Brothers Grimm. Often entrancing and sometimes quite intense, the film has a fairy tale quality that gives the unfolding drama about three dissatisfied young women living with their domineering father a classic, old-fashioned air.

This isn’t necessarily a turn-off for audiences, but the lack of a modern narrative arc hurts: There is no closure as the curtain comes down, no sense that anyone has learned a crucial lesson or that wrongs have been righted. On the contrary, life goes on in its cyclical way, emphasized by the girls’ old father starting to tell them a familiar story over and over again. This is no doubt a deliberate choice on Alper’s part. The characters have a marked tendency to repeat their mistakes — many scenes even seem to happen twice — with the same disastrous results. It’s disconcerting to contemplate life as a non-learning experience, but this is just what the pic asks us to do.

In the end, this Berlin competition entry seems less exciting than Alper’s first two films which traced a paranoid family vacation in Beyond the Hill and told the cryptic story of two brothers in Frenzy. But it's good to see the writer-director reaching out towards new themes and styles.

As the quaint stone and wood houses dwarfed by imposing rocky mountains come into sight, you can almost hear the words, “Once upon a time.” Pretty little Havva (Helin Kandemir), the youngest of three sisters, is being driven back to the village by the man she worked for in the city. Tears well up in her eyes. A child has died — the child she was taking care of — and the family has no more need of her.

Her aged but still spry father, Sevket (Mufit Kayacan), immediately starts plotting a new job for Havva, especially since (coincidence) her sister Nurhan (Ece Yuksel) has also been dismissed from a care-giving job. She is driven home sick and coughing by her employer Dr. Necati (Kubilay Tuncer), who has fired the rebellious, outspoken girl for trying to discipline her little charge for bed-wetting. Dr. Necati decides to spend the night in his old village, which will prove to be a fateful decision.

The eldest daughter is the sunny, sharp-tongued Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya); she’s married and has a small baby she adores. She lives in her father’s two-room house with her husband Veysal (Kayhan Acikgoz), a superstitious, illiterate shepherd. While out in the cold with his flock, he is frightened by scary noises at night (so is the audience). His fears seem to crystallize when two mysterious, hard-faced men appear out of nowhere and begin questioning him about his sheep. Later, his father-in-law upbraids him as a coward, and his wife also seems to despise him.

This is the tinderbox situation as evening falls the next day. While Dr. Necati is feted by old Sevket and the village chief at a boozy raki picnic on the edge of a cliff, Reyhan exchanges confidences with her sisters that cast quite a different light on Dr. Necati (she used to work for the family before Nurhan).

The other key scene is a lengthy discussion among the three men drinking raki under the trees and Veysal, who joins them uninvited. In a moving plea, he asks the doctor for a job in the city so his son can go to school and grow up with better prospects in life. But what with the raki and his bumpkin ways, not to mention the blind opposition of Sevket and the village chief, he doesn’t make a good impression.

The third act is sheer tragedy. No one notices the obvious similarities to previous events. In fact, in an epilogue, life seems to go on as it always has. The sisters are none the wiser and, like small children, want to hear their father tell stories they’ve heard many times before.

Painstaking technical work builds the tense atmosphere of the finale. DP Emre Erkmen turns the snowy landscape into a magical world by day and a fearsome metaphorical one by night hiding unknown dangers, like two poor miners who risk their lives in a collapsed mine for a bag of coal. Giorgos and Nikos Papaioannou expand scenes with their sweet, nostalgic music, which includes violins and the lilting tunes of folk singers.

Production companies: Liman Film, NuLook Production
Cast: Cemre Ebuzziya, Ece Yuksel, Helin Kandemir, Kayhan Acikgoz, Mufit Kayacan, Kubilay Tuncer, Hilmi Ozcelik, Basak Kivilcim Ertanoglu
Director-screenwriter: Emin Alper
Producers: Nadir Operli, Muzaffer Yidirim
Director of photography: Emre Erkmen
Production designer: Ismail Durmaz
Costume designer: Alceste Tosca Wegner
Editor: Cicek Kahraman
Music: Giorgos Papaioannou, Nikos Papaioannou
Casting: Ezgi Baltas
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
Sales: The Match Factory

108 minutes